More than 30 people attended a PS21 event on Oct. 22, a workhop with the statewide nonprofit Plan New Hampshire. Plan NH’s Robin LeBlanc says the workshop aims to “shift” thinking about the future by examining assumptions about life here, conversations that are going on, and questions people have or might ask about the coming decades.
Below are notes on the wide-ranging discussion as recorded by PS21’s Jerry Zelin.
Doug Roberts: Announces a North End walk scheduled for 10-11 a.m. Nov. 8, 2014, 10 A.M., starting at on Maplewood AvenueCindy Ann Cleaners, to discuss possibilities for each lot in the North End.
Robin LeBlanc: She has lived in New Hampshire for 30 years, currently Exec. Dir. of Plan New Hampshire.
Audience: Attendees introduce themselves. Most live in Portsmouth. Some live in Eliot, Durham, etc.
Robin: Plan NH develops workshops like this, to trigger shifts in thinking about the future of towns and cities. Not Portsmouth-specific but for any community …
Socio-economic diversity when moved here
Robin: Those are our values. How would a real estate broker describe Portsmouth?
A college town without a college.
Big town, little city.
Vibrant cultural center w great restaurants
Robin: This is unique time in Portsmouth and other towns. What happened in past several years cannot continue. We need to look at what the future can be. However, we sometimes get stuck in old ways of thinking, same old conversations, e.g., thinking of dealing with traffic by widening lanes. How do we become unstuck from those old ways of thinking?
She asks everyone to write down their: “assumptions,” “conversations (who),” and “questions.”
- Take hard look at our assumptions, e.g., how the community works, who is in the community.
- What conversations are we stuck in, what conversations should we have with whom?
- What questions can we ask to become unstuck in thinking about the future?
Most communities look at problems to be solved. Instead, look at the opportunities. Change the question from a negative to a positive. What sustains us as human beings at basic level?
Audience: First tier: air, water, food, shelter. Second tier: people, purpose, jobs, transportation, stories, relationships.
Robin: What is the role of the community to ensure that those needs are being met, and where in the community do we find them? Much of what caused people to move here is what satisfies many of those needs.
What forces of change are affecting the community? (Demographics are changing, which shifts the focus.)
Increasing gap between rich and poor. Working families find it more difficult to afford to feed their children.
More people are getting older; there are fewer younger families in Portsmouth, fewer K-12 students.
Rents taking a bigger chunk of income.
With closure of Pease Air Base, the population dropped, the city lost some ethnic diversity.
Changes in weather patterns (e.g., stronger storms, more volatility). This has an impact on power lines, the ski industry, flood plains, agriculture (e.g., orchards).
Robin: Smart growth encourages locating housing closer to road so infrastructure can be shorter.)
We are currently in a period where lots of infrastructure is wearing out and needs to be repaired or replaced.
Downtown is busier. Increase in tourism.
Cost of real estate. Leads to less diversity (younger people can’t afford to move in, artists move out.)
Fewer apartments, more condos.
Robin: Identify changes in thinking in the country that have an impact on the community.
energy sources and energy types.
Food sources (is the food healthy, local, processed, packaged?)
Robin: In some communities in New Hampshire, there is no store with healthy food.
She describes the “Triple Bottom Line.” Most decisions are based on the economic bottom line, “how much does it cost?” Triple bottom line also considers the social and environmental bottom line. E.g., sidewalks may be expensive, but have social and environmental benefits.
“Equity”: does not mean equality, but means fairness . . . fairness for everyone. When looking at what sustains us, a question might be, Is it fair that not everyone has enough food, that shelter for some people is substandard? How does that fit with our values as a community?
Hard to reach consensus on these concepts, especially in a polarized society.
Some companies have embraced the triple bottom line and they are thriving E.g., Stonyfield yogurt, green buildings.
The triple bottom line is the “three ‘e’s’ of sustainability.” Economy, equity and environment
Portsmouth is the center of a broader Seacoast region. So don’t limit value statements in a way that ignores the broader region.
When talking about a parking garage, focusing on economics skews the discussion if we ignore social and environmental benefits and costs.
Robin: One town started a public bus service for people who do not drive. However, the town was later reluctant to spend money on that service, while the town simultaneously spent lots on building and plowing roads. Is that fair and equitable? It was a purely economic decision to terminate the bus service, not an equitable outcome.
hat kinds of jobs are we creating, what skills are we teaching in school? Many jobs now don’t allow people to sustain themselves. How can we as a community create better jobs?
A developer can say building a hotel creates jobs for young people.
Robin/audience: There are four infrastructures of the community:
- “Social” (clubs, friend, neighbors).
- “Economic” (businesses, taxes, tourism, industries, retail, entertainment, construction).
- “Environmental” (air, water, built environment, absence of built environment, open spaces).
- “Leadership” (government, community leaders outside of government).
Robin: Portsmouth is also influenced by what happens in surrounding towns, and vice versa.
Portsmouth is a cultural and entertainment center for neighboring towns.
However, Portsmouth is pricing out artists who cannot afford to live here, so the vibrancy may shift to the communities to which they move.
Durham is embracing sustainability and now has some nice and modest-priced housing for students.
Need to avoid losing Portsmouth’s historic attributes.
Robin: Instructs the audience to break down into small groups, one group per table, for 20-25 minutes. She asks each table to identify:
- what came up tonight that they never thought of before,
- what assumptions are we now questioning,
- what conversations is the community stuck in,
- what conversations should we have and with whom
- what new questions do we have that we should be asking, and
- what old questions can be reframed?
Audience: After 20-25 minutes, the tables report as follows:
It seems that the balance of power rests with developers in the city, at the expense of workforce housing and the general population.
We assume that we are a safe city with strong police and fire departments.
Portsmouth is also safe because people are outside a lot. (Outside activity reduces crime.)
Is growth good, bad, inevitable?
Robin: Everything on the white board in the front of the room is being discussed in Portsmouth (values, why we are here, and the three bottom lines).
Many assume that the opportunity to initiate real change is behind us.
Many assumed that zoning would protect the city, yet we don’t have much workforce housing, instead we have 5-story buildings.
Workforce housing is needed. That’s different from subsidized housing for the poor. Five percent of the city lives in subsidized housing.
If a family’s income is less than $84,000 annually, it qualifies for workforce housing.
Many portions of city have legislated out workforce housing.
With a four-story building and retail mandated on first floor, workforce housing does not work under formulas set by federal agencies that contribute to the costs.
Also, land in the city is expensive and height limits don’t allow the density.
Is it really too late to solve these problems, e.g., lack of workforce housing?
What about allowing higher buildings in the North End in return for including workforce housing? (I.e., grant conditional use permits allowing greater building height if the development includes workforce housing.)
Can we subsidize existing housing so it’s affordable for the workforce?
Allowing increased density fosters workforce housing. Perhaps we should allow garages and mother-in-law apartments to be converted into separate rentable housing units.
Over the years, what was once workforce housing has become more expensive to own. Examples include Atlantic Heights, Pannaway Manor. Land expensive here. Land value in outlying towns would support workforce housing, but then residents would need transportation.
People should not be forced to live outside the town in which they work.
Robin: The average cost to own a care in New Hampshire is $45 per week. It’s difficult for a worker earning the minimum wage to afford a car plus housing, if the worker can’t walk or take public transportation to work. Think of surrounding towns as part of Portsmouth. It’s OK to live there and to work in Portsmouth if we have public transportation.
Audience: Other assumptions:
- That Portsmouth is a tourism community and will continue to be.
- That the arts are vibrant and will continue to be.
- That part of value of living in downtown Portsmouth is living in a walkable city
- That property values are always highest close to the center of town.
- Not all demographic groups are represented at tonight’s meeting
- We should consider green space, not just the built environment.
- What we see now are the fruits of zoning decisions made in 1980’s.
- Zoning decisions we make now will guide what happens for the next 20 years
- Is it too late, given the amount of recent construction?
- Almost every building constructed nowadays will stand for only 30 years.
Doug Roberts: Thanked Robin and audience and repeated info about the North End walk, which will take place the weekend before the city’s four-day “charrette,” which will gather citizen input for “character-based” zoning of the North End.
Deputy City Manager David Allen: The North End charrette is scheduled for November 10-13, very likely in the office building at 111 Maplewood Ave., in a space with windows looking out onto the North End. There will be free parking on a Vaughan Street lot for this event. The start and end times have not yet been firmly set, but each day will probably begin at 7 A.M. to and run to 11 P.M.